Nothing If Not Satirical

The Nunnery, London

Art Monthly, Issue 274, Mar 2004

This exhibition, as discussions about politically aware video art so often do, begins with Martha Rosler: her 1977 work The East is Red and the West is Bending is the earliest here. It functions as a keynote for the show, combining the three major themes that the curator, Pryle Behrman, seeks to explore: satire, inter-cultural politics, and artists' use of video as a way of annexing TV. The work in question is classic Rosler: the artist stands behind a kitchen workbench, TV chef-style, talking to the camera while performing cooking-related activities. In fact she is demonstrating the West Bend Electric Wok, reading from the appliance's instruction booklet and acting out examples: chopping vegetables with a cleaver, stirring with a wooden spoon (not a metal one because of the non-stick surface) and so on. Of course, when Rosler reads the instructions, she brings out the subtle nationalism inherent in the text. For example, the booklet claims that, because China has experienced great hardship and famine, the Chinese will eat anything - hence the wonderful flexibility of the wok! Like most goods claiming inspiration from another culture, this one markets itself as respecting ancient traditions while simultaneously improving them with such treats as built-in electric heating elements and dishwasher-safe finishing. It's common marketing guff, of course, but Rosler had already recognised it and was expertly skewering it some 27 years ago. Yet the piece is neither programmatic nor dead-pan - Rosler's monologue is littered with impromptu asides - and it is this playfulness, allied to Rosler's critical intelligence, that makes the artwork so successful. It sets a benchmark for the newer works.

Some of these pieces aren't helped by the awful acoustics in the space (three works, including Rosler's, benefit from headphones). It may be a prosaic detail in an intelligently selected exhibition, but ask Kip Fulbeck how happy he is that the comic commentary on his video, Sex, Love & Kung Fu, is virtually inaudible. The monologue seems to be a playful appreciation of Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon interlaced with a confessional tale of the artist's teenage attempts to get a girl into bed, while the frenzied editing displays a slick wit and love of cult pulp. It's entertaining but, in this company, lacks a sense of purpose.

A similar criticism could be levelled against David Blandy's From The Underground, 2001. In this the artist films himself miming to the Wu-Tang Clan's Bring Da Ruckus, which thuds through the gallery. He performs this lip-synching while travelling down the escalator at Archway tube station and continues along the platform and onto a train. Blandy's emotions flick from aggressive confidence as he is swept along with the lyrics to embarrassed nervousness as he waits between verses knowing what a plank he looks: some long-haired geek performing for himself in public. It's an amusing strategy but the choice of song is problematic; while it's fun to see Blandy doing his best with lines like, 'I rip it hardcore, like porno-flick bitches / I roll with groups of ghetto bastards with biscuits', it's obvious that he's never going to come across as anything but a twerp. In a compelling previous work he had mimed to Syl Johnson's soul classic Is It Because I'm Black, which, because it relied on world-weary feeling rather than posturing, raised more interesting questions about whether this young white art student could get away with it.

Getting away with it also crops up in Doug Hall's The Amarillo News Tapes of 1980, which shows footage of the artist joining the Pro News network in Amarillo, Texas, as a reporter. Ostensibly this was to explore the language of television news and the way that news media generates its own stories, but it grows into a wider satire on the formats and personalities of local news stations as the link-shot waffle becomes increasingly bizarre - is the whole thing a convoluted joke? ('Up next, Monty Python's Flying Circus', states the anchorman.) But the emphasis shifts uncomfortably when a real news item breaks - a Tornado in Wichita Falls has claimed more than 50 lives. Revealingly, the reporter interviewing people whose houses have been ripped from around them can only ask, 'What went through your mind?' While the townsfolk give eloquent accounts of their experiences, it's clear that the news report has slipped into emotive documentary.

As for artists taking over TV, Jenny Holzer simply paid for her slots - her Televised Texts are short videos made for ad-breaks. Holzer's signature-style texts zoom off to the horizon as a patriarchal voice reads them aloud: 'Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid', 'Slipping into madness is good for the sake of comparison', etc. It's a typical, powerful Holzer work, but out of context when not part of broadcast television. Lip, a 1999 video collage by Tracey Moffatt (with Gary Hillberg), is not unlike the 100 Best clip shows that have recently been filling TV schedules. The clips feature black maids from Hollywood movies, each treated disdainfully by their employers and either returning the feeling in kind, outsmarting their superiors, or simply getting on with things and ignoring the nonsense around them. The soul soundtrack - Chain of Fools, Freedom - gives the work a remarkably upbeat, feelgood emphasis, while the narrative of stares, eye-rolling, and backchat leaps back and forth through the decades. Playful and insightful, the piece is more celebratory (of the typecast actresses) than accusatory.

While these works are successful in their own way, none match the critical sharpness of Rosler's. However, the final video is Coco Fusco's The Couple in the Cage: Guatianaui Odyssey. This 1993 film documents a touring performance in which Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña presented themselves as 'undiscovered American-Indians' from a fictional island off Mexico. As such, they were displayed in a golden cage at various museums around the world. Originally conceived as an obviously satirical commentary on previous such ethnographic displays, the credulity of large sections of the audience quickly became apparent. Despite the fact that the couple spent their time watching TV and typing on a computer, and were dressed in animal-print wrestling masks, plimsoles, heavy metal-style studded leather wristbands, cowboy boots and sunglasses, many visitors accepted the scenario as genuine. And while some were outraged, others enjoyed it - even feeding the couple bananas through the bars. Intercut with revealing interviews with museum visitors and historical footage of savages being presented as circus novelties, this startling, complex work shows that there is still a surprising appetite for such inhumane exoticism. Intelligent, important satire at it's very finest.

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